Fact Checked

What are Oil Lamps?

Ken Black
Ken Black

Simply stated, an oil lamp is a lamp that burns oil as a fuel source to keep a source of light continuing. This source of light is in the form of a flame. Oil lamps are one of the most ancient forms of lighting and are known to have existed millennia before the time of Jesus Christ. In fact, some say they date back as far as 10,000 BCE.

Lamp oil can be made from a variety of things. Whale oil was a very popular material for oil lamps for centuries. As whales were hunted to a point where they became scarce, other forms of oil or fuel have taken its place. Today, kerosene, or fuel oil, is one of the most popular fuels for oil lamps.

An oil lamp.
An oil lamp.

Oil lamps started out from natural materials that were used to hold a fuel source. Therefore, they had to be impermeable to liquid yet resistant to flame. It could be that the first oil lamps were made from stone. Others say they were likely made from sea shells. Both materials have been known to be formed into oil lamps in ancient times.

Throughout the centuries, clay became the most popular type of material used in the creation of oil lamps. Its abundance in many parts of the world contributed to its popularity because it meant the material could be obtained relatively cheaply. Also, clay is very resistant to heat and can easily hold liquids.

A kerosene lantern.
A kerosene lantern.

Today, the most common types of oil lamps are those made from metal, glass or a combination of materials that may also include plastic. These materials are durable and heat resistant, and therefore help make the best lamps. However, at least in the developed world, the modern oil lamp is mainly a decorative object. The functionality of oil lamps was diminished when electrical lighting came into widespread use.

Tiki torches are a type of oil lamp.
Tiki torches are a type of oil lamp.

The largest portion of an oil lamp is either the reservoir or the chimney. The design of the lamps has changed over the centuries, however, and some older lamps or replica lamps do not have chimneys, which helps protect the flame from wind and other elements. The reservoir holds the fuel supply and the wick is dipped into that fuel.

Today, the oil lamp is used mainly to create a specific lighting atmosphere or perhaps to give off an aroma. Scented oil lamps can fill a room with a fragrance of choice. There are dozens of scents to choose from. Tiki torches are popular in outdoor settings. While they are called torches, they are not a true torch because they have a reservoir of fuel. Therefore, they are a type of oil lamp.

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Discussion Comments


We have two wall hanging oil lamps with chimneys that are open at the top. We want to hang them above the mantle. There is a paneled overhang over the mantle. How much space above the chimney is necessary to make sure whatever is above does not get too hot or burn?

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    • An oil lamp.
      By: Aleksandar Mijatovic
      An oil lamp.
    • A kerosene lantern.
      By: Gino Santa Maria
      A kerosene lantern.
    • Tiki torches are a type of oil lamp.
      By: Bert Folsom
      Tiki torches are a type of oil lamp.
    • Lamp oil is designed to burn cleanly in oil lamps.
      By: indigolotos
      Lamp oil is designed to burn cleanly in oil lamps.